Friday, June 12, 2015

Words and more words: Palavra project 2.2

Last night at II ELGA, I presented another iteration of Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. Give a Word. Have a Word.) - my word exchange project. The previous iteration, presented last week at the same venue, was very popular. Since then, I have been getting many inquiries and requests for repeating the project. There are many new people here in Cabo Frio this week for the second week of the conference as this one encompasses a broader range of topics and more speakers. The event is called II ELGA (The second Latin American School of Algebraic Geometry and Applications). Mathematicians from all parts of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Columbia, Mexico, United States and Europe are here, so there are lots of languages to compare and mix. Although it was my original intention to stick to Portuguese and English, the 40-piece letter-set can easily be used for all Latin languages. Of course, even this had to be expanded, when requests came to approximate of Chinese characters and Cyrillic letters. Last night, even a few Persian words made their way onto the cards, although these were anglicized.
Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra.
Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
The more times I present Palavra the better I can see the many layers and potentials of the project. Because it is extremely simple, the project is very expandable. It’s like a game that can be repeated over and over because it makes itself anew in the playing. It even kind of looks like a game: The letter-set I made in Rio packs into a small box and thus travels well, making me consider future destinations on my itinerary where I could also perform it.
Since in this set the letter-forms were appropriated from street signage (logos, offices, graffiti, hand-scribbled signage of street vendors,etc.) I also see a potential of finding these again wherever I go and making a new set for every destination. I’ve been invited to present this at the Seattle Center this summer, which I’m looking forward to doing.

Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
The words collected are an archive of the connections created, both among languages and among the participants of the project. A typical event draws people in not just for the few minutes of the actual exchange—which entails writing the word that one is giving into my ledger and, in exchange, choosing an already printed card with a word given by someone else— but people tend to hang around and watch me arranging the words and then printing them. And so we strike up fascinating conversations about the words on the table. This is the best part.

Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
My role is more like that of a relay or a facilitator. It’s easy to incite conversations. We chat about everyone’s home of residence and the particulars of their native dialect. I ask each participant to pronounce and explain the word they give so that I can learn them and would be able to transmit this information to others later. Stories follow the words; one leading to another like stringing beads.

Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra.  
There are many corky words, many moments of fun, for example when learning a slang-word “cuático” (meaning an adjective that adds intensity to every noun it is used with) particular to Chile, while unknown in the other spanish-speaking South-American countries, or when the French participants compare their respective R’s between the dialect of Marseille and Paris.
Among the Portuguese words there is everything from “feijoada” (a shop that sells the staple bean-and-pork stew) to “pirilampo” (fire-fly) and “gentileza” (kindness, especially beloved by Carioca). Surprisingly, there is no math terminology, other than the word “matemática” itself (which, due to my scrambling of the letters in an attempt to make something like concrete poetry, was misread by its adopter as Italian for “mother of the short sides in the right angle triangle”).

Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
We've found out that the playful-sounding “zizanie” means a “discord” in France and also in Italy, and that it comes from the Bible where the parable refers to sowing a seed of the similarly named plant, which then spreads and cannot be eradicated. Each word makes another, sometimes necessitating many brains to put the meaning together or to come up with a proper translation. Occasionally, we turn to the translator app on my phone, then debate the results. Such was the case of “fogo-fátuo” a phenomena of a quick burst of light, said to be seen in the cemeteries in Brazil, which is a result of gasses escaping. It took a while to recall the Hungarian equivalent: “lidérc.” One wonderful encounter was with an older Persian lady, who walked up to me then dramatically gestured to the sky, to the heart, and then to the ground, exclaiming “khoda” “eshgh” “hasti.” With the help of her daughter’s translation I managed to find out that she has just come up with the triad (god, love, being) as her credo on the spot.
Dar Uma Palavra. Ter Uma Palavra. 
A few people seem uncertain when approaching the table, not knowing which word to part with, as if what they give would have to be an all-encompassing symbol for something. Like handing over some kind of a precious thing. Most people stay around long or come back to see what new words come to the table. Everyone walks away smiling and holding their chosen card as if the word taken was especially meaningful, which is heart-warming to see. We talk about how languages change, how they are alive and how we create meanings and symbolism through usage. I mark every card on the back with a legible writing of the word and the date of the printing. This is another part of the recording process. The cards that are left at the end of last night will become the first cards to choose from when the project is presented next in Seattle.

My view of the ocean in Cabo Frio during the project. 
It’s been a privilege to be able to do this project now twice in a leisurely way in this beautiful environment of Cabo Frio, Brazil and with so many exceptionally brilliant people, abstract thinkers who not only speak many languages but also love geeking out on words with me.

*All images of the Palavra project appearing on this blog are copyrighted 2015. Use by permission only.

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